The Sitka Assembly approved a combination of budget cuts and tax hikes on Tuesday night (6-9-15), bringing the city within spitting distance of a balanced budget for 2016.
They also approved about $370,000 worth of cuts to city services; and voted to pull about $300,000 more than originally budgeted from the city’s permanent fund.
You can find a full list of proposed cuts here.
Altogether, that package fulfills the assembly’s commitment to find an additional million dollars for the Sitka School District this year. And the increased tobacco tax will bring in an estimated about $256,000 for Sitka Community Hospital, which is still struggling after its financial crisis this winter.
City administrator Mark Gorman submitted the list of proposed cuts, and assembly members accepted them all – except an option to nix $100,000 in grants to local nonprofits. Instead, the assembly voted to reduce that fund by a quarter, leaving $75,000 still available.
Mayor Mim McConnell and members Tristan Guevin and Michelle Putz had to recuse themselves from the vote because they work or serve on the board of local non-profits.
Speaking during public comment, Randy Hughey, of the Sitka Community Development Corporation, said that was telling.
“It’s pretty indicative that when you take this vote, three assembly people have to stand up and leave,” he said. “And that has to do with the…size and the consequence of the nonprofit economy in Sitka. It’s very big here, it does a lot to benefit Sitkans, in terms of quality of life and economically. It’s a big economic engine.”
The cuts that were approved include a half-time “multi-purpose officer” at the Sitka Police Department. Chief Sheldon Schmitt said that likely means the city will lose its only parking enforcement officer. The assembly also voted to eliminate a half-time position at Centennial Hall, while the building is under construction. And Kettleson Memorial Library will cut eight hours a week– that’s down from a proposal to shut the library one full day each week.
Among other cuts, the city will save $90,000 by putting off improvements at the Fire Hall, including a new carpet and refinished floors. Another $83,000 comes from postponing a new roof for the animal shelter. The city anticipates $30,000 in savings from scaling back its snow-ploughing efforts in winter. Another $40,000 will come out of the employee training and travel budget. And the city will save $12,000 by eliminating an employee wellness program and ending its contribution to the annual employee holiday party.
And then there’s the $1500 saved by no longer providing snacks for the assembly during meetings.
Members voted down a proposal to cut funding for The Ride, Sitka’s bus system. A proposal to strip out $25,000 promised to The Ride in the 2016 budget failed, 3 to 3. Members Matt Hunter, Aaron Swanson and Steven Eisenbeisz voting to cut the funding. Ben Miyasato recused himself because he sits on the Sitka Tribal Council. The Sitka Tribe runs The Ride, in partnership with the Center for Community.
Meanwhile, the tobacco tax almost proved a sticking point. It would add about $1.25 to the cost of a pack of cigarettes, which already hovers around $9. Assembly members debated whether the point of the tax was to decrease smoking or to prop up Sitka Community Hospital. In the end, Michelle Putz said she was fine with both reasons.
“I am not against killing two birds with one stone,” she said. “I think that it’s great that it can potentially do good things for health…and I think it’s great that it’s filling a hole in the budget that we are having a lot of difficulty filling.”
The tobacco tax passed 5-2, with Tristan Guevin and Steven Eisenbeisz voting no.
Meanwhile, the assembly postponed, again, a proposal to put a measure on the October ballot to increase property taxes. That proposal would dedicate any new revenue to Sitka schools. But having relieved the immediate pressure to fund the school district this coming year, assembly members said they’d like to see a longer, community-wide process to overhaul the tax code.
In other business, the assembly voted to award the nearly $13-million contract for renovating Harrigan Centennial Hall to MCG Constructors and Dawson Construction.
And a proposal to restructure the board of Sitka Community Hospital was postponed.
You can find more coverage of the Sitka Assembly here.